The guests broke out into excited conversation. The King beamed and embraced his eldest son. “Ne Ravka!” he shouted, lifting his champagne.
“Ne Ravka!” sang the guests.
I was surprised to see Nikolai frowning. He’d said his brother liked shortcuts, and it seemed Vasily had found one. But it wasn’t like Nikolai to let his disappointment or frustration show.
“An extraordinary achievement, brother. I salute you,” Nikolai said, lifting his glass. “Dare I ask what they wanted in return for this support?”
“They do drive a hard bargain,” Vasily said with an indulgent laugh. “But nothing too onerous. They sought access to our ports in West Ravka and requested our help policing the southern trade routes against Zemeni pirates. I imagine you’ll be of some assistance with that, brother,” he said with another warm chuckle. “They wanted a few of the northern logging roads reopened, and once the Darkling is defeated, they expect the cooperation of the Sun Summoner in our joint efforts to push back the Fold.”
He grinned broadly at me. I bridled a little at his presumption, but it was an obvious and reasonable request, and even the leader of the Second Army was a subject of the King. I gave what I hoped was a dignified nod.
“Which roads?” asked Nikolai.
Vasily waved his hand dismissively. “They’re somewhere south of Halmhend, west of the permafrost. They’re sufficiently defended by the fort at Ulensk if the Fjerdans get any ideas.”
Nikolai stood up, his chair scraping loudly against the parquet floor. “When did you lift the blockades? How long have the roads been open?”
Vasily shrugged. “What difference—”
The wound at my shoulder throbbed.
“A little over a week,” Vasily said. “Surely you’re not concerned that the Fjerdans intend to march on us from Ulensk? The rivers won’t freeze for months, and until then—”
“Did you ever stop to consider why they might concern themselves with a logging route?”
Vasily gave a disinterested wave. “I assume because they’re in need of timber,” he said. “Or maybe it’s sacred to one of their ridiculous woodsprites.”
There was nervous laughter around the table.
“It’s defended by a single fort,” Nikolai growled.
“Because the passage is too narrow to accommodate any real force.”
“You are waging an old war, brother. The Darkling doesn’t need a battalion of foot soldiers or heavy guns. All he needs are his Grisha and the nichevo’ya. We have to evacuate the palace immediately.”
“Don’t be absurd!”
“Our one advantage was early warning, and the scouts at those blockades were our first defense. They were our eyes, and you blinded us. The Darkling could be mere miles from us by now.”
Vasily shook his head sadly. “You make yourself ridiculous.”
Nikolai slammed his hands down on the table. The dishes jumped with a loud rattle. “Why isn’t the Fjerdan delegation here to share in your glory? To toast this unprecedented alliance?”
“They sent their regrets. They were not able to travel immediately, due—”
“They’re not here because there’s about to be a massacre. Their pact is with the Darkling.”
“All of our intelligence puts him in the south with the Shu.”
“You think he doesn’t have spies? That he doesn’t have his own operatives within our network? He laid a trap that any child could recognize, and you walked right into it.”
Vasily’s face turned purple.
“Nikolai, surely—” his mother objected.
“The fort at Ulensk is manned by a full regiment,” put in one of the generals.
“You see?” said Vasily. “This is fearmongering of the worst kind, and I will not stand for it.”
“A regiment against an army of nichevo’ya? Everyone at that fort is already dead,” said Nikolai, “sacrificed to your pride and stupidity.”
Vasily’s hand went to his sword hilt. “You overreach, you little bastard.”
The Queen gasped.
Nikolai released a harsh laugh. “Yes, call me out, brother. A lot of good it will do. Look around this table,” he said. “Every general, every nobleman of high rank, most of the Lantsov line, and the Sun Summoner. All in one place, on one night.”
A number of faces at the table went suddenly pale.
“Perhaps,” said the freckle-faced boy across from me, “we should consider—”
“No!” said Vasily, his lip trembling. “This is his own petty jealousy! He cannot stand to see me succeed. He—”
The warning bells began to ring, distant at first, down near the city walls, one and then another, joining each other in a rising chorus of alarm that echoed up the streets of Os Alta, through the upper town, and over the walls of the Grand Palace.
“You’ve handed him Ravka,” said Nikolai.
The guests rose, pushing back from the table in a gabble of panic.
Mal was at my side immediately, his saber already drawn.
“We have to get to the Little Palace,” I said, thinking of the mirrored dishes mounted on the roof. “Where’s Tamar?”
The windows exploded.
Glass rained down on us. I threw up my arms to shield my face and the guests screamed, huddling against each other.
The nichevo’ya swarmed into the room on wings of molten shadow, filling the air with the whirring buzz of insects.
“Get the King to safety!” Nikolai cried, unsheathing his sword and running to his mother’s side.
The palace guards stood paralyzed, frozen in terror.
A shadow lifted the freckled boy from his feet and threw him against the wall. He slid to the ground, his neck broken.
I raised my hands, but the room was too crowded for me to risk using the Cut.
Vasily still stood at the table, the King cowering beside him.
“You did this!” he screamed at Nikolai. “You and the witch!”
He lifted his saber high and charged, bellowing with rage. Mal stepped in front of me, raising his sword to block the blow. But before Vasily could bring down his weapon, a nichevo’ya grabbed hold of him and tore his arm from its socket, sword and all. He stood for a moment, swaying, blood pumping from his wound, then dropped to the floor in a lifeless heap.
The Queen began to shriek hysterically. She shoved forward, trying to reach her son’s body, feet slipping in his blood as Nikolai held her back.
“Don’t,” he pleaded, wrapping his arms around her. “He’s gone, Madraya. He’s gone.”
Another pack of nichevo’ya descended from the windows, clawing their way toward Nikolai and his mother.
I had to take a chance. I brought the light down in two blazing arcs, cutting through one monster after another, barely missing one of the generals who crouched cowering on the floor. People were screaming and weeping as the nichevo’ya fell upon them.
“To me!” Nikolai shouted, herding his mother and father toward the door. We followed with the guards, backing our way into the hall, and ran.
The Grand Palace had erupted into chaos. Panicked servants and footmen crowded the corridors, some scrambling for the entrance, others barricading themselves into rooms. I heard wailing, the sound of breaking glass. A boom sounded from somewhere outside.
Let it be the Fabrikators, I thought desperately.
Mal and I burst from the palace and careened down the marble steps. A screech of twisting metal rent the air. I looked down the white gravel path in time to see the golden gates of the Grand Palace blown off their hinges by a wall of Etherealki wind. The Darkling’s Grisha streamed onto the grounds in their brightly colored kefta.
We pelted down the path toward the Little Palace. Nikolai and the royal guards trailed behind us, slowed by his frail father.
At the entrance to the wooded tunnel, the King bent double, wheezing badly as the Queen wept and held tight to his arm.
“I have to get them to the Kingfisher,” said Nikolai.
“Take the long way around,” I said. “The Darkling will be headed to the Little Palace first. He’ll be coming for me.”
“Alina, if he captures you—”
“Go,” I said. “Save them, save Baghra. I won’t leave the Grisha.”
“I’ll get them out and come back. I promise.”
“On your word as a cutthroat and a pirate?”
He touched my cheek once, briefly. “Privateer.”
Another explosion rocked the grounds.
“Let’s go!” shouted Mal.
As we sprinted into the tunnel, I glanced back and saw Nikolai silhouetted against the purple twilight. I wondered if I’d ever see him again.
* * *
THE WOUND AT my shoulder burned and throbbed, driving me faster as we raced along the path. My mind was reeling—if they had a chance to seal themselves in the main hall, if they had time to man the guns on the roof, if I can just reach the dishes. All of our plans, undone by Vasily’s arrogance.
I burst into the open, and my slippered feet sent gravel flying as I skidded to a halt. I don’t know if it was momentum or the sight before me that drove me to my knees.
The Little Palace was wreathed in seething shadows. They clicked and whirred as they skittered over the walls and swooped down on the roof. There were bodies lying on the steps, bodies crumpled on the ground. The front doors were wide open.
The path in front of the steps was littered with shards of broken mirror. Lying on its side was the shattered hulk of one of David’s dishes, a girl’s body crushed beneath it, her goggles askew. Paja. Two nichevo’ya crouched before the dish, gazing at their broken reflections.
I released a howl of pure rage and sent a fiery swath of light burning through both of them. It fractured along the edges of the dish as the nichevo’ya disappeared.
I heard the rattle of gunfire from up on the roof. Someone was still alive. Someone was still fighting. And there was one dish left. It wasn’t much, but it was all we had.
“This way,” said Mal.
We tore across the lawn and in through the door that led to the Darkling’s chambers. At the base of the stairs, a nichevo’ya came shrieking at us from a doorway, knocking me off my feet. Mal slashed at it with his saber. It wavered, then re-formed.
“Get back!” I yelled. He ducked, and I sent the Cut slicing through the shadow soldier. I took the stairs two at a time, my heart pounding, Mal close on my heels. The air was thick with the smell of blood and the bone-shaking clatter of gunfire.
As we emerged onto the roof, I heard someone shout. “Away!”
We just had time to duck before the grenatki exploded high above us, searing our eyelids with light and leaving our ears ringing. Corporalki manned Nikolai’s guns, sending torrents of bullets into the mass of shadows as Fabrikators fed them ammunition. The remaining dish was surrounded by armed Grisha, struggling to keep the nichevo’ya at bay. David was there, clinging awkwardly to a rifle and trying to hold his ground. I threw the light high in a blazing whipcrack that split the sky overhead and bought us a few precious seconds.